29 January 2015

Small is Beautiful

This book definitely makes my list of "What are potentially life-changing books".
(to which I will also add Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

In short, this makes a fantastic textbook for Vanderburg's course. In fact I like it better than his own books since the language is more straightforward here. Though there's no doubt that Vanderburg has read this, since his course and this book shares the theme of appropriate or intermediate technologies as the path forward, instead of the unlimited growth that is deeply embedded in our culture.

btw, may I suggest the 25th anniversary edition if you do decide to read this. The additional commentary is relevant and brings the text more up to date.

To begin:
There are inherent thresholds in the scale of human activity that, when surpassed, produce second- and third-order effects that subtract if not destroy the quality of all life.
This pretty much summarizes the theme of the book. But do keep reading.
He later elaborates on how society has forgotten that growth or progress is a vector and not a scalar [my analogy, quite proud of it]. That is, there is bad growth. The related Vanderburg point would be that progress is a central myth in our society, and a property of the central myth is that we don't question its goodness, rather we are conditioned to believe that it is good and is the solution to everything.

On man and nature:
Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. (4 - The Problem of Production)
which explains why the Market only values man-made things and does not price natural capital depletion.
He also talked about the contradiction in Man's role as a producer and consumer. As a producer, Man is good when he maximizes profit, whereas Man as a consumer can and should care about things like social welfare and environmental degradation. The problem arises as they are the same person.

He also talks at length about work. The main idea were
  • work must be humanizing, aka workers should not mimic machines
  • ownership should be distributed amongst the workers
  • organizations have the obligation to their community and local environment. 

On the lack of moral considerations in modern economies:
...dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to do any good (11-Peace and Performance)

Why ask for virtues, which man may never acquire, when scientific rationality and technical competence are all that is needed? (12 - "")

[Keynes says that] for at at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. (12 - "")
The market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. (29 - The Role of Economics)
Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. (248 - Epilogue)

On existing:
Every increase of needs tends to increase ones dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear (20- Peace and Performance)

All traditional philosophy is an attempt to create an orderly system of ideas by which to live and to interpret the world. "Philosophy as the Greeks conceived it," writes professor Kuhn, "is one single effort of the human mind to interpret the system of signs and so to relate man to the world as a comprehensive order within which a place is assigned to him" (64 - The Greatest Resource - Education)

[Byron's poem]
Sorrow is knowledge; they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
(70 - "")

An educated man:
He will not be in doubt about his basic convictions, about his view on the meaning and purpose of his life. He may not be able to explain these matters in words, but the conduct of his life will show a certain sureness of touch which stems from his inner clarity. (73 - "")

On burden of proof:
Burden of proof on those who take the "ecological viewpoint": unless they can produce evidence of marked injury to man, the change will proceed. Common sense, on the contrary, would suggest that the burden of proof should lie on the man who wants to introduce change; he has to demonstrate that there cannot be any damages. (109 - Nuclear Energy) 

On international development, which I am taking to heart:
[New development thinking will not say] "What is the best for the rich must be best for the poor". It will care for people - from a severely practical point of view. Why care for people? Because people are the primary and ultimate source of any wealth whatsoever. If they are left out, if they are pushed around by self-styled experts and high-handed planners, then nothing can ever yield real fruit, (140 - Development)

Their first need is to start work of some kind that brings some reward, however small; it is only when they experience that their time and labour is of value that they can become interested in making it more valuable. (145 - Social and Economic Problems Calling for the Development of Intermediate Technology)
Reading those chapters has seriously made me consider development as a focus for my career. Will be interesting to see if that comes true.

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